What are Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)?
The stream-of-consciousness cognition that occurs at the surface level is called Automatic Thoughts. They emerge from words, images, and other types of mental activities that pop into our heads as a response to stimuli. Stretching it forward, Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are a set of beliefs we hold about ourselves by drawing inferences from prior events. More often than not, they are negative views we form about ourselves. As the name suggests, these thoughts are reflexive and flow automatically. They cannot be controlled by us directly. However, on being aware of its direct uncontrollability, we can indirectly challenge the beliefs that led to the thoughts. These thoughts may seem unimportant and mundane at first but have a substantial impact, affecting health outcomes and holistic quality of life.
Our Cognitive Bias: Construction of the Self-Concept
The way we perceive ourselves concerning our abilities, past experiences, prospects, and other aspects of the self is called self-concept. We construct our self-concept, and the way our self-concept and cognitive biases affect our lives has to do with automatic thoughts and automatic negative thoughts. For instance, someone with a negative self-referential schema is more inclined to take things personally, leading to automatic negative thoughts. They are more prone to think negatively about themselves than exploring positive thoughts. A negative self-concept may lead to an unending cycle of automatic negative thought patterns and, eventually, more acute symptoms of depression.
Why Do Some Of Us Experience Automatic Negative Thoughts More Than Others?
In several ways, automatic negative thoughts are curative. In the event of an emotional overhaul, our mind develops ways to protect us from hurt or a broken heart. It is an unconscious defense mechanism. These automatic negative thoughts shield us from emotional harm or reduce the impact whenever that happens. The problem, however, begins when these automatic thoughts begin dominating our life to the extent of controlling it. It is comparatively easy to slip into a spiral of anxiety, stress, and depression with several irritants in our life.
Automatic thoughts manifest when the negatively charged thoughts get translated into corresponding emotions and subsequent bodily changes. The classic example is the body’s fight or flight response on spotting a lion. In the case of automatic negative thoughts, several negative ones cyclically run through your mind, and one is unable to get out of it. But these automatic thoughts need to be intercepted. For that, there has to be a reconstruction of a healthy, positive concept of self.
What Are The Different Types of Automatic Negative Thoughts?
Here are six broad types of Automatic Negative Thoughts:
‘All Or Nothing’ Thought Process
People often tend to think of extreme absolutes and subject themselves to automatic negative thoughts. The ‘all or nothing’ thought process only reasons in terms of black and white, ruling out any possibility of situational middle ground. So when the first wave of challenges hits, the first inclination is to distinguish the right or the wrong. With automatic negative thoughts, one is unable to see the positive side of the situation.
- I am so weak.
- I cannot ever achieve my goals because I failed my test yesterday.
- I am no good.
When you start calling yourself names or assign terms for yourself that carry negative connotations, it is a kind of labeling. For instance, this kind of labeling is often seen in a job seeker who is frustrated about being rejected at job interviews and gives up. When this kind of name-calling happens, your brain begins taking the signals and leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- I am a failure.
- I am a loser.
As an unintended consequence, one actually begins to feel like a loser even when you are not, making the body respond to these automatic negative thoughts accordingly.
The Blame Game
Deemed as the most harmful type of automatic negative thought, those who suffer from this are susceptible to deflecting the responsibilities of their personal actions onto others. For them, their problems are never the result of their actions or inactions. They render themselves powerless and are unable to take control of their lives.
- It is because of you that I am so out of shape.
- It is because of you that I did not get a job.
Thinking With Your Feelings
When people start overthinking along the lines of how they feel about something, they tend to alienate from truth and reason. The automatic negative thought usually masquerades itself by presenting itself as truth. You never question this reasoning and listen to this negative monologue by default. For instance, if someone is trying to fall in love again, the automatic negative thought raises its head by making negative conclusions about behavior, habit, or goal.
- I feel like a fool.
Those who tend to tell fortunes are mostly found a step ahead in their ambition and life goals. But more often than not, it is dangerous because they are always predicting the worst possible outcomes. They never visualize or expect anything positive and keep constantly drawing from previous events. For instance, a tired job seeker would always tell themselves that they would never get the desired job because there is no point in anything they do. But there is always scope to break the habit.
- My future is bleak.
- I can’t finish anything.
- There must be something wrong with me.
- It’s just not worth it.
Mind Reading is a type of automatic negative thought process that occurs when you begin to assume you know the cause of someone’s behaviors towards yourself. The assumptions consolidate when you are sure that they cannot think positive things about you, hate you, or do not want to see you succeed. When mind-reading as an automatic thought is disrupted or stopped, it can lead to isolation because one has already concluded in their mind that no one is ever going to be good to them.
Automatic negative thoughts such as mind-reading are ubiquitous to the extent of crippling interpersonal relationships and professional life. But there is always a way to stop that and break the habit.
- My colleagues don’t regard me as the group leader.
- My boss hates me.
Some Examples of Positive and Negative Automatic Thoughts
How do we know that automatic negative thoughts actually present themselves, and in what form? In 1980, Stevan Hollan and Philip Kendall developed an Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-30) and enlisted examples of positive and negative automatic thoughts.
Negative Automatic Thought Examples:
- I feel like everyone is at war with me.
- Why can’t I ever succeed?
- No one understands me.
- I’m so disappointed in myself.
- I’ve let people down.
- I don’t think I can go on.
- I wish I were a better person.
- My life’s not going the way it should.
- Nothing feels good anymore.
- I can’t stand this anymore.
In 1989, the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-R) was revised, and a list of positive thoughts was added as examples of automatic thoughts.
Positive Automatic Thought Examples:
- I’m proud of myself.
- No matter what happens, I’ll make it through.
- I feel fine.
- I can accomplish anything.
- I’m warm and comfortable.
- I feel good.
- I can achieve anything I set myself to.
- This is super!
- I feel delighted.
- I’m luckier than most people.
Cognitive Restructuring of Beliefs and Automatic Negative Thoughts
Higher levels of positive automatic thoughts are associated with higher levels of happiness. Positive thoughts can counterbalance the adverse effects of stress and automatic negative thoughts in general. For instance, those who consciously cultivate positive automatic thoughts are less likely to feel bogged down by stress than someone with less frequent positive automatic thoughts. Under stressful conditions, those with more positive automatic thoughts will feel that their lives are more meaningful than those without them.
With positive automatic thoughts comes happiness and better mental outcomes. But while negative thinking is quite natural to us and it is nearly impossible to eliminate it completely, it can be neutralized by cultivating positive automatic thoughts. This is what can be termed as cognitive restructuring of core beliefs. It involves identifying the complex cognition of negative automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions, a rational discussion of those negative automatic thoughts using Socratic dialogue, and developing a sensible rebuttal of those thoughts.
Effective cognitive restructuring focuses on self-evaluative automatic negative thoughts, especially those which are triggered by certain situations. For someone who is faced with an uncomfortable situation, concentrating on a thought such as “I don’t know what to say” is helpful because it can be negated with role-playing. Another cognitive restructuring approach when dealing with other-referent automatic negative thoughts is to lessen the outcomes of the negative automatic thoughts.
Research indicates that those with substantially higher levels of dispositional mindfulness are less prone to experiencing automatic negative thoughts. This is because they can more easily direct their attention elsewhere or let go of negative thoughts. It has been found that a mindfulness intervention derived from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction effectively lessened the multitude impact of automatic negative thoughts. Mindfulness is a powerful way to counteract automatic negative thoughts.
How to Stop Automatic Negative Thoughts and Break The Habit?
When you feel overwhelmed, here are some measures you can take to arrest the automatic negative thoughts and steer your thought process in a positive direction.
Identify your Automatic Negative Thought and Own It
It is no good blaming others or your circumstances for how you feel. Acknowledge and own your problem to break the habit of automatic negative thoughts.
Replace Automatic Negative Thoughts With Positive Thoughts
Then affirm by speaking them back to yourself. Reframe the negative thoughts into positive ones to stop the cycle of negativity.
Engage your mind in constructive activities, and it will keep automatic negative thoughts at bay. Quieten your mind with mindfulness and meditation.
Challenge Your All-or-Nothing Belief
Imagining the worst-case scenario or engaging in faulty interpretations of others’ actions is a distortion of reality.
Allow Others The Benefits Of Doubt
Choose to believe that people are not purposely trying to hurt you.
Open the door to forgiveness. It will release you from nursing hurt and painful memories. Once you let go, you will begin to experience inner freedom.
Expect Failure and Setbacks
Negative thinking often germinates from unrealistic expectations. When trying to accomplish something, situations may go off-script. Accept it, take it in your stride and use setbacks to hone your skills.
Seek Professional Help
Realize that you cannot do everything alone. Seek support for the cognitive restructuring of beliefs in the form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
You Have What It Takes
Want to break your habit of automatic negative thought processes? Break the chain. Break the pattern because you are in charge of your own life and happiness.